The Road Less Traveled

If you want a traveling adventure then travel with an adventurer. Who, or what, defines an adventurer? Simple: an Adventurer is that one person either too unafraid, too stubborn, or just plain too… uncomplicated… to limit themselves to the common, sensible road.

Sometimes you just need to go with the dumb choice and see what happens.

Scott and I have often said we’d like to take a day ride together through Kananaskis Provincial Park, otherwise known as K-country, to visit my wife Ronya on one of her tours. Ronya works as a paramedic deep in the mountains on a two-on, four-off rotation that has her situated in some of the richest mountain scenery for 48 hours straight. The countryside is frequented by a lot of motorcycle enthusiasts and it’s always worth the trip.

This past Saturday Scott and I finally managed to coordinate our schedules enough to take that ride.

I’ve been out there a number of times to visit my wife while she’s working but I’ve only ever taken two routes: either straight out on the number 1 and then down the 40 or south out of the city through Turner Valley and Black Diamond to the south end of highway 40 and up to the station. Both routes circle around K-country to either the top or the bottom before moving inward on the well paved, well maintained, and well
traveled highway 40.

For this ride, however, Scott wanted something different. He decided we would take a
route straight through the middle of K-country, a route that would take us across to highway 40 directly. I had often tried to find such a route on my ordinary provincial map but never could. I assumed Scott had a solid idea of the route we would take. At least he seemed to.

We started the trip heading straight south out of Calgary to highway 22x. Instead of continuing further south to Turner Valley, however, we continued straight west where we got to see how the rich country folk live. One rise lead to a view of a farm straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, complete with a large red barn nestled in massive

We eventually came to the turnoff for highway 22 and a short jaunt north took us in to Bragg Creek.

Stopping in Bragg Creek was more for me than Scott. I’d slept in that morning and our rushed departure meant I hadn’t had time to get in my morning coffee. Lucky for both of us Bragg Creek is rich with cafes and wineries, including one location that was a pleasant combination of both. The cinnamon cafe has excellent brownies, I’m told.

With a short stop for some coffee and idle chat we returned to our bikes. The sky was a perfect blue with only the faintest wisp of cloud. We couldn’t have asked for a better day for a ride.

We took highway 758 out of Bragg Creek because it took us along the very waterway for which the town is named. There were a lot of locals out enjoying the gorgeous day as well, with entire families camped out by the river. I was amused by the one teen girl who was just getting out of the river with her four foot inflatable shark.

The 758 eventually lead us back to highway 22, just as it changed to highway 66. We continued west on 66 and soon found ourselves passing the Kananaskis Country sign. A few more kilometers down the road and we were passing the iron bar gate that locks the road off during the winter months. The road intersects with a major migration route for deer, elk, and mountain goats during fall and spring months, and is just plain impassible in winter, so it gets locked down between December 1 and June 15 every year.

It’s worth the wait. The area is far less traveled and therefore far less worn than the usual camping areas. And there are plenty of camps along the highway, every one of them marked with a “no vacancy” sign that weekend. The whole park was filled to capacity with people, although we hardly saw any of them. The scenery was lush and thick.

We saw a few mountain goats and deer along the way. The important distinction between the two is that while deer will quickly bolt away from the sound of your engine and your horn, goats will simply stare at you and chew their cud as they straddle the middle of the road.

There was also the occasional herd of cattle. Their movement is generally slow but predictable.

Highway 66 eventually came to an end at little campground next to Forget Me Not
pond. The highway actually transformed into a gravel road, while the pavement continued to the left into the campground parking. When we found the pavement ended at the park we pulled over and Scott asked if I had a map. It didn’t occur to me at the time to wonder why he didn’t have a map himself, I just assumed he had a good idea of where he was going already and hadn’t bothered to bring one.

My map didn’t turn out to be much help anyway as it didn’t have highway 66 or Powderface Trail printed on it. Scott tossed it back to me, lit another cigarette, and said “fuckit, we’ll go back and take Powderface Trail.”

I hadn’t actually noted the name of the gravel road we’d passed so I thought he was talking about some other paved road further back. It wasn’t until he signaled for the left turn that I realized where he was going.

A little stunned at this turn of events I beeped my horn to try and get his attention, most especially to point out the three by twelve foot sign he’d just passed, the one that said:


But he either didn’t hear me or didn’t care. He just churned his way around the first bend, gravel rolling out beneath his rear tire.

I was sure he had seen it. It was large and white with clearly printed black letters, all capitalized. You couldn’t miss it. So, in my trusting naivete, I decided he must have known something I didn’t, and churned my own way around the first corner.

Truth was, Scott didn’t know any more than I did. He honestly had no way of knowing where the road would lead, or if it was even passable. He just figured we’d give it a try.

It wasn’t until we were past the first turn that we found out that Powderface Trail did indeed lead across the park, to highway 68, and would do so in 34 kilometers. From there we’d be able to take the 68 to highway 40 and onward to the fire station.

Which would have been no problem except this was my first time ever riding on a gravel road. It’s something I’ve deliberately avoided in fact. I’ve heard horror stories of people laying down on gravel during turns. Scott even had a joke about it: “What’s the difference between gravel and ball bearings? Ball bearings don’t hurt as much when you fall on them.”

Needless to say I was a little scared, and a little tense.

But I did it. I made it through the whole trek, and what’s more I enjoyed just about every second of it. I won’t lie, there were a few sketchy moments where I felt the front tire skidding out a bit t
hat spiked my adrenaline, but for the most part I enjoyed the ride.

More than enjoyed it, in fact. I was concerned that my bike would not be suited to rough travel, but in truth it felt like my little Suzuki 550 GS was made for rough gravel roads.

I never shifted higher than second. Most of the time the bike simply rumbled it’s way around the curves, uphill and down. without a problem. The throttle gave me just enough control to make it up the hills without spinning my wheels and the clutch just enough friction to slow me on the downgrade without sliding.

I had a thought during my ride: My bike was made in 1978, the year in which I turned thirteen. The perfect year for a young boy to receive a newborn pup were his parent’s so inclined. In a few years later that pup would’ve grown into a solid, reliable watch dog, strong and true. A few decades later, though, and the loyal dog would be old, well past his prime, and possibly a little unsure of his usefulness.

But give that old dog a dire situation, a chance in which to prove himself and to show the young pups How It Was Done In The Day, and the rough and confident rumbling growl you’d hear from his chest would sound very much like my Suzuki.

It was not spry, it was adept. It was not nimble, it was steady. It did not prance, it
prowled. It did not force, but flowed. It was firm, sure, and direct. It knew what it was doing and it did not falter. Not once.

After the trip Scott asked if I’d ever ridden on gravel before. I admitted I hadn’t. He apologized and admitted he’d wished he’d asked sooner. He would have given me some advice on how to handle it. Primary among the gems would have been “don’t fight the bike, let it do it’s thing.”

I was fortunate enough to figure that out on my own. I quickly learned to let the bike right itself when the rear tire started to slide. The temptation to hit the brakes was strong, but I knew from my training that braking on gravel while sliding would only complete the tragedy, not avert it. I also kept to a steady, slow acceleration and
deceleration. Essentially, it simply becomes important to avoid any sudden movements.

As you might with any old and loyal watchdog.

The road was glorious. Alternating between being bracketed so tightly by trees that you felt as if you were winding your way through a tunnel to wide open plateaus that left you breathless. Switchbacks and tight turns abound, with little room to pass any oncoming traffic. Luckily, there is very little other traffic on that road.

There were a dozen or so parked cars, campers enjoying their weekend in the back woods, and about a handful of mountain bikers forever pumping their way uphill. I wanted to salute those cyclists for their herculean efforts, but I was mindful of keeping both hands on my grips. I did give them a quick wiggle of the fingers from my left hand, though, and they did the same back. I guess that’s the back-roads rider equivalent of a hearty wave.

We also passed one fellow with a dirt bike who was taking a bit of a rest. He gave us a big smile and a wave. I wondered if he thought we were nuts going down that road on street bikes.

Modern bikes, I theorized, would have problems with the road if they weren’t dirt bikes. Sport bikes would be too high strung… energetic pups too eager to be kept under control, their back ends wagging with unbridled enthusiasm. One twitch of the throttle and the bike would be skittering off down the road with the rider sliding behind it. And while the laid back cruisers would probably handle the measured pace required I
couldn’t help but imagine the riders whining “My chrome! My paint job!” as the gravel pelted their showy purebreds.

We arrived at highway 68 in under an hour or so and took a short break to both stretch our limbs, congratulate ourselves and, in my case, drain off some adrenaline. I took my jacket off to cool down a bit and noted how my normally black motorcycle jacket was now an uneven tan in color. I remarked to Scott on how that was the dirtiest my jacket had been to date and he offered me some congratulations of his own.

Highway 68 was, in some ways, a little scarier that Powderface Trail. At least Powderface espoused caution and frequently warned us of turns and steep grades, suggesting speeds more in keeping with playground zones than open roads. Highway 68 was just as much gravel as Powderface but broader and less serpentine. It’s suggested speed limit is 80 km, more in keeping with what you’d expect from an open road.

I don’t think we managed 80 km more than three or four times. We kept to a stately 60 km for most of it, still watching the curves for drifts of gravel and sticking to the well worn tire tracks as much as possible. It was with some relief that we finally reached the paved highway 40. The chance to open up the throttle and race to the relatively heady speed of 90 km was a relief.

We visited with my wife for an hour or so, Scott getting his first tour of the station and all it’s gear. We took a look at the mock burning house where they honed their fire fighting skills and got to learn about the ins and outs of dealing with fighting fires out in the back country. Even when there’s a hydrant available it’s pressure isn’t always
reliable. There were siphon hoses with computer controlled pumps and, as a last resort, a massive tanker truck filled with emergency backup water.

As we sat in the hall’s kitchen, it’s front window looking over mountains shrouded in cloud, Ronya entertained us with stories about what it’s like to work out there. Like the two grizzlies that had them pinned in the station until conservation officers could come and deal with them… or the time the snow came down so fast and hard that it took two of them over an hour to shovel enough snow just to get the hall’s bay doors open. There are times in the winter when emergency services just simply aren’t available because they’re quite literally snowed in.

The logistics of backwoods emergency services makes me doubly glad I work at a desk.

Before continuing down the road Scott and I stopped in at the Delta hotel in Kananaskis village for a quick lunch. Tourism runs year round at the hotel and we saw plenty of hikers and other nature lovers coming and going. We also had a couple of the best ham sandwiches I’d ever tasted from their Deli.

Well sated we continued on down the road towards Lougheed park. We stopped at the
only gas station available on highway 40 and were pleasantly surprised to note how their exclusivity hadn’t prompted them to jack their prices sky high. I’m sure they could have charged double if they’d wanted to.

While filling up our tanks we chatted with a number of other riders out enjoying the day. A few other riders were curious about our “antique” bikes and had numerous questions, many of which I simply couldn’t answer. “It rides well enough for me” was about the best I could ans
wer them. Scott’s old BMW R80 was of particular interest because of it’s unusual side mounted piston configuration. Scott commented that while
the jutting pistons did prevent him from taking turns at steep angles there was also little need for him to do so.

After a bit more banter and comeraderie Scott and I set off once again, fully intending on checking out Peter Lougheed park. Unfortunately we missed the initial turnoff and, while debating whether or not to turn back to it, storm clouds began to loom. We decided it would be more prudent to simply head back for the city.

The 40 lead us down to Longview, known locally for its phenomenal beef jerky, where we had another brief rest stop. We used the gas station’s squeejees to clean the road debris from our helmets. Scott took the moment to point out that it was very evident which of us had the wind screen. His jacket was covered with numerous bug hits. Between his bug guts and my mud layer it was a toss up which of us looked rougher.

The distinction was soon moot, however, as we encountered an intense thunder and hail storm shortly after gassing up in Turner Valley. We tried waiting it out at the intersection of the 22 and 22x, and gave it another go when the rain stopped. Unfortunately we very quickly caught up with it again and found ourselves pelted by hail at 110 kmh.

Resigned to our fate we decided to just tough it out and muscled our way home. Twenty minutes later we were pulling into my driveway, soaked through and through.

But at least our jackets were clean.